It’s 2021, and as your new Spectator media columnist I’m here to tell you that the American media is a disaster. It’s not that there aren’t still many exceptionally talented reporters and editors doing good work, against all odds — there are. It’s that the overall scene is being destroyed. Newspapers are on the verge of extinction. Newer, supposedly more agile online-only outlets are shedding staff or shuttering as well. No one has come close to developing a replacement for the funding model that kept journalism humming along nicely until the internet came along and broke everything.
Of course, the destruction has birthed creation. Journalistic startups pop up frequently, though few do anything that seems worthwhile and sustainable. The crowdfunding revolution — that is, services like Substack and Patreon which allow content-consumers to pay content-creators directly — has certainly provided opportunities (I’m a beneficiary) and elevated some new voices, but it hasn’t funded much traditional in-the-muck journalism, in part because opinion and outrage are always cheaper.
Then there’s that whole ‘truth’ thing. The truth has traditionally been very important to journalism, but a larger and larger chunk of the overall media pie is dominated by partisan and hyperpartisan actors for whom it is a secondary concern. In my view, the right is much further down this road than the left. I vividly remember watching the latest unhinged rumor about Hillary Clinton race through far-right online networks in 2016 and being shocked at what fringe outlets would ‘report’. Pizzagate and QAnon and so many other utterly depraved conspiracy theories would not have caught on if the average conservative were swimming in epistemically healthy waters. More pressingly, the fact that according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll 55 percent of Republicans continue to believe Donald Trump won the election tells us something even more important — and grim — about how pathological that media ecosystem has become.
But the vast majority of mainstream outlets are left-leaning, and I’m worried that that side — my side, if I’m being honest — is starting to exhibit certain tendencies I’ve long associated with right-wing media. There is what feels like a heightened sense among many mainstream journalists (particularly younger ones) that they are not only observers but active participants in vital social-justice battles. Knowing this doesn’t require any dramatic leaks of internal chats, or anything like that — they’ll simply tell you. And this attitude leads directly to unjournalistic editorial decisions which degrade public trust in our institution.
The fight over where the line between journalism and activism should lie — or if there should be one at all — has sparked a series of high-profile internal meltdowns at elite journalistic institutions, garnering a massive amount of media coverage (and delighting the right, of course). At the New York Times alone, there was former opinion staffer Bari Weiss’s fiery resignation note, precipitated by what she said was widespread internal bullying and revulsion at any sort of dissent from progressive orthodoxy; the internal revolt that led to the ouster of the highly decorated science reporter Donald McNeil Jr for mentioning the ‘n-word’ on a student trip to Peru; and the resignation of former editorial page editor James Bennet after dozens of staffers claimed a Tom Cotton column calling for the military to be deployed against violent protesters put the lives of black staffers ‘in danger’.
Many of my fellow progressives argue that there’s really nothing to see here. These convulsions within media organizations are simply the result of historically underrepresented people asking to be respected, of a long overdue reckoning after a seeming eternity of white men dominating newsrooms. There’s a kernel of truth here — of course it is the case that until fairly recently, many groups were effectively shut out of media, and that any shift toward sensitivity and inclusivity will bring with it certain tensions — but that also misses the bigger picture. The meltdowns which have occurred in many major media outlets are mostly the result not of ‘traditional’ battles over equitable treatment, but reflect the rise of a very particular set of political, moral and causal claims that are draped in this language but go well beyond it.
It’s one thing to ask that journalists from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds be allowed to do their jobs in peace, free of harassment or innuendo that they are too ‘biased’ to cover their beats, and there’s certainly work to be done on that front. It’s another to argue, apparently in earnest, that merely printing a column expressing a commonly held belief causes danger to one’s colleagues. Yet this attitude is endemic in top-level mainstream outlets. At Vox, for example, a staffer publicly complained to her bosses after Matt Yglesias signed the milquetoast pro-free-speech Harper’s letter (which I signed as well), on the grounds that his doing so made her ‘feel less safe’ at work. This eventually contributed to Yglesias’s own departure for the sunnier, more independent skies of Substack.
These sorts of beliefs are not even particularly popular within mainstream newsrooms, at least if the quiet messages I get are any indication: a Times staffer pointed out to me that the 150 names on a strident letter demanding Times management re-investigate McNeil’s trip to Peru represent a tiny fraction of the paper’s total employees. Rather, they are held mostly by a very passionate vanguard. But that vanguard has managed to exert a surprising amount of influence via its messaging, which repeats, ad nauseam, that if you are against their very specific claims, argot and actions, you are an enemy of justice itself. You don’t get it.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2021 World edition.